After reading, check out Cluney’s self-portrait and 10 favorite illustrations since 2006 in this gallery.
The room is dark and artist Johnnie Cluney is sprawled out on an examination table.
His physical therapist, Kristen, a spindly woman with vice grips for hands, is working on his right arm.
His drawing arm.
“This is definitely tighter than when you came in on Monday,” she says.
His face hardens as her fingers run up and down his tattooed hand and arm. They are as covered as you would imagine an artist’s to be, but her fingers work mainly between two landmarks: from the clam shell holding a pearl on top of his hand to just below his elbow, where an outline of the two states he’s lived in, Iowa and Illinois, rests with the quad cities marked by an unassuming dot.
It’s 10 days after his 5,000th illustration for Daytrotter, and he’s here for the pain.
He’s here because he draws too much.
His working habits, four- and five-hour marathon sessions of intense sketching and coloring, dig into the muscles and bones that allow him to make a living. To illustrate the point: Johnnie’s right tricep is embroidered with a shovel.
Odds are you’ve seen the work produced by his right arm—if he hasn’t already drawn your favorite band, he’s drawn someone you’ve heard of. Now, at 5,000 illustrations and counting, Johnnie Cluney might just be the most prolific and viewed artist on the Internet.
And the pain—the pain is a concern.
Cluney, 33, has always worked in squares.
First it was notebook covers in junior high, drawing Ninja Turtle heads and block letters by request. Then it was concert posters for punk shows and zines in high school. And for the last nine years at Daytrotter, it’s been smaller squares. When he started, the squares used to be 6 inches. Now, they’re just 3 ½ inches wide, just larger than the way they appear on computer screens.
“You have to have something to house the image in,” he says from beneath a heavy black moustache, sitting in his studio at his own house.
The image of Johnnie Cluney is perhaps best viewed from this square—the square of his desk.
“It’s an old teacher’s desk. It’s really a trunk of a tree,” he says. He’s dwarfed by the mass of it.
His laptop sits in the center flanked by an old cigar box. A cup of iced coffee (“Infinite Black” is the brew’s name) fills a glass to the left. His Prismacolor markers and pens are scattered in among piles of paper holding photographs of his subjects, both “to-be-done” and “completed”.
I ask where he keeps them all, and he gets up from the desk to rummage in his file cabinets where most of the 5,000 physical portraits live. They aren’t in a particular order, but they can all be touched, handled, felt.
This is important.
“I have to have them around me, for my own mental comfort,” he says, his voice firming. “It’s important to know that they aren’t all just caught up in the cloud somewhere.”
Johnnie likes things. A collection of PVC toys lines the windowsill. LIFE magazines and vinyl records fill crates stacked around his desk. He’s a self-described thrift store and garage sale “freak,” and the artwork hanging from the walls in his studio space and the rest of his house are all rummage sale finds.
Each piece he finds is a sobering reminder.
“When I’m digging through it all, I think, ‘This is going to be some of my artwork someday,’” he says. “The goal as an artist is not to sit on your own artwork, but you don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands either.”
He’s working on three different squares at once today, and the June sun piercing through the shaded window isn’t helping him. He’s trying to background the portrait of the band Mooner, but the light is hindering his hand.
“You like Mexican food?” he asks, turning away from his work. “This place is the OG. I’ve eaten there every day this week.”
A quick drive through Rock Island with Johnnie Cluney is more like a tour. The native has a story for almost every house and landmark we pass.
“I bought five pairs of Beatles boots there once at a garage sale,” he says, pointing to a house on the corner. “All different colors.”
“That used to be a record store where an old dude and all his buddies went every day for years,” he says, pointing to a vacant storefront. “It shut down after he died.”
We are touring the place that has shaped the artist, and he acknowledges every revision—however tiny or vast—that’s been made to his square of the world. To him, Rock Island is being reinvented. He says things like downtown Rock Island has been “popping off” over the last few years. He tells me that people who have left are now coming back to stay. There’s a farmer’s market downtown, new businesses, restaurants, and microbreweries—like the Bent River Brewing Company we pull up to, itching to wash down La Rancherita’s greasy chicken and steak gorditas before his date with physical therapy.
“In some way, I think Daytrotter has had something to do with that,” he says of Rock Island’s boom, somehow both proud and humbled at once.
We’re killing time at the bar before his physical therapy session, and he’s talking about something else he hopes gets reinvented soon: country music. Like many, he’s hailing Sturgill Simpson as the savior of the genre. He’s drawn him twice, but there are others he he’d kill for to draw.
They read like a listing of exhibits at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, and, especially, Neil Young.
He’s the one musician that comes up perpetually throughout the day. When he’s talking about a band’s best album, he says, “it’s their Tonight’s the Night.” But it’s the reinvention of the man himself that Johnnie gravitates to most. He talks about Young’s unexpected ’80s albums, Everybody’s Rockin’ and This Note’s For You, and his collaboration with Pearl Jam, Mirror Ball.
The idea of reinvention is what Cluney would call “heavy,” especially for an artist whose own arm is showing mileage.
“I’ve always been the guy that could draw,” he says, playing with his coaster.
He checks his phone and finishes his beer.
It’s time for therapy.
Like a chef in a grocery store or a carpenter at lumberyard, in an art store, Cluney’s eyes widen with possibility. It’s just down the road from the therapy facility. There isn’t an art store in Rock Island, so after his sessions twice a week, he goes here.
Bettendorf Office Products is the last establishment in a mini-strip mall, and inside, Johnnie takes little time getting what he needs.
1. Prismacolor markers. His two most used colors are Light Peach
and Black. He takes the lastLight Peach markers from the rack.
3. Micron Pens, sizes .03,.05, and .08. He buys a handful of each.
As we are driving back to his house, Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill is in the CD player. Cluney’s therapy session has rejuvenated him and his mind is racing. In between stories of his obsession with VH1’s Classic Album series and how he once traded more than 100 cassettes for a single CD (The Bouncing Souls’ Maniacal Laughter), he talks about his recent fatherhood. His daughter, Marigold, is 11 months old, and, when Cluney gets home, she’s dressed as a strawberry with a matching pink barrette.
His wife, Bambi, is rocking with her in a porch swing. It’s getting on to dinner time, and Bambi says she’s craving La Rancherita. Johnnie’s down for it— again—but first he has some work to finish: those three squares. The sun is fading fast, and maybe now he can finally finish up that background.
Johnnie Cluney has been an artist his whole life, and has the pain and physical therapy bills to show for it. But damn if he will let that get between him and his squares.
“Every single one of them is special. They have to be,” he ratifies. “This is the biggest thing that some of these bands will ever do, and I want to bring it for them. I shouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t believe in that.”
At age 5,000 and counting, Johnnie Cluney has no plans for reinvention.
Check out Cluney’s self-portrait and 10 favorite illustrations since 2006 in this gallery.